Welcome to the Jingle


Giggly Japanese girls proclaim, “We love dancing,” and then follow with some of the least persuasive “Yay”s in the history of applause, while fast drum’n’bass beats skitter around them. But the vocal and the guitar riff very much do not signify “jungle.” “Jingle” would be more accurate. And the giggles are giggles. Hop around the clock. More giggles, while schools of minnows and whole families of rabbits and their friends dart back and forth. Beneath this, a bass plays a nonchalant little melody that ought to be two octaves higher, on xylophone.

I’d describe Arling & Cameron’s music as drum’n’bass-influenced techno with all sorts of textures and knick-knacks from pop worlds past, but by “pop” I don’t mean music that the populace necessarily ever liked but simply music that the populace was subjected to in the course of everyday pursuits: ad jingles, TV themes, incidental music, ski-resort soundtracks, scores to ’60s espionage thrillers, cocktail jazz. The words “loungecore” and “easy listening” recur in the promo sheets, but there is so much nonlounge/non-easy-listening in their music that it doesn’t make sense for lounge to get top billing. Arling & Cameron could just as easily be jinglecore, showcore, jazzcore. Anyway, I doubt that anyone in either loungecore’s or Arling & Cameron’s prime audience has been to a real lounge in his life.

“Speeding Down the Highway.” Slightly subdued international-resort-city funk, wan bah-bah-bahs in the vocals, and a breathy female claiming she’s the fastest girl around. Meanwhile, the jazz chords take you to every beach and casino on the strip. It’s Monte Carlo 35 years ago. Except that down in the drums and basses there are pushy modern-day rolls and blats, as if the song could spin sideways, while the woman says, “Control.”

For a while in the ’60s, cool lounge jazz meant “modernity” in the movies, even though this modernity had almost no correspondence to what the “cool” youth were actually listening to, which tended not to be cool at all but impassioned and virulent, or poppy and delirious. Yardbirds, Stones, or Beatles (or James Brown, the Supremes, Aretha). This music would have blown such movies apart at the seams.

A great slinking, um, Hawaiian (?) guitar, and a French chick and guy singing “Voulez-vous, voulez?” We’re back at that same resort city, but 12 years later, dancing to “lite” disco (with strobe “lites,” perhaps), yet the men all wear turtlenecks just as they would have back in ’67, in the hopes that they’d appear—stylishly—in the dance interlude of some old Bond flick. Deep reggae bass that doesn’t call attention to itself but illustrates the Arling & Cameron method: smooth surface, strong undertow.

Arling & Cameron are my favorite band in the world right now, despite the fact that the idea of mixing lounge with d’n’b/techno seems merely like mixing the phony sophistication of yesteryear with the phony sophistication of today, and despite my fear that in general lounge stuff has been rehabilitated not as “sophistication” but as old trash and “isn’t-it-cool-that-we’re-playing-this-old-crap”-type clowning. A&C avoid this problem by playing the old lounge music not only out of a genuine appreciation of its gentleness but also with a predilection for its more rhythmic subgenres, cha-cha-cha and bossa nova, for instance. Which is to say that they play it not just for comedy and texture but for what’s visceral. And using dub and drum’n’bass in this context doesn’t create a weird dance-floor mongrel, it just adds to the rhythmic force of what is still essentially gentle music. And A&C have got a lot more hooks and melodies than are normally allowed in modern-day clubland.

Their new LP, titled with the self-explanatory Music for Imaginary Films, gives them the opportunity to, for example (on the first track), do a low-key funk with psychedelic-Shaft guitars along with jazz noodles on the piano (you got such a mixture in early-’70s soundtracks—Isaac Hayes had opened the door), and breathy French vocals (which you wouldn’t have gotten in blaxploitation pix, but which make sense here musically). Even when the concept isn’t “dance,” there’s a dance-floor option. Also (to use jazz terminology), A&C really cook, no matter how low-key or deliberately trivial they’re sounding, and this is one way that they (usually, not always) avoid being camp or kitsch or cute.

Here’s the chase, the speedboats, the international bad guys in goatees, the windswept but poised heroes in pursuit: The new album, conceiving of itself as film music, imagines films only from the era 1965 to 1975, it seems, during a time when youth music—rock in particular—was too socially divisive to appear on many film soundtracks.

From what I’ve gleaned from promo sheets and Web pages, I get a sense of Arling & Cameron simultaneously fleeing from and trying to create musical worlds. (The Exclaim! Web site and a.d. amorosi’s profile in the July 29, 1999, issue of Philly’s City Paper were particularly helpful.) Gerry Arling had been an Ornette Coleman-esque jazz musician who’d begun to feel constricted by free jazz; Richard Cameron had been a singer-songwriter doing Ian Curtis mopery. In the mid ’90s they each got into electronic dance, finding liberation in both the impersonality of the dance imperative (no matter what, it has to have dance beats) and in the freedom, once you have those beats, to insert and mix virtually anything into the groove. But they felt that electronic dance music was ultimately too cold. So they began putting on Easy Tune parties, playing old records, old soul, old pop, ’60s easy listening. There was a lot of kitsch and camp in this, dressing funny, a lot of humor. Too much, they finally decided. Cameron: “Just being camp—just being funny—is not enough. It wears thin.” And “We are not funny like Benny Hill. We are funny like Kraftwerk.” So they put Easy Tune to rest and began making their own music and came up with the concept “All-In” (the name of their first U.S. release), which essentially means “all-inclusive,” i.e., not just lounge and electronic dance but potentially anything.

And I find something touching in this story—maybe contained within it is an explanation of why Arling & Cameron sound warm rather than cute, gentle rather than like a poke in the ribs. Which is to say that they discovered freedom in obsolete styles: old jingles, cocktail textures, anything they liked they were free to play, if it made them happy. So they’d created a safe place of gentle textures and happiness. But the styles were safe because the styles were dead: Lounge music, spy soundtracks, and so forth have long since had their social and emotional significance erased. It’s yesterday’s sophistication and sensuousness—now stripped of any threat or impact. VIP lounges of today don’t play such music, do they? The elegance here is an elegance that no one either aspires to or fights against anymore.

The concept “all-in” is impossible, of course, but it could be the motto for a glorious journey. Arling & Cameron have reclaimed some of the pop past; I wonder if next they’ll try to reclaim the present, which would mean taking in the socially divisive, the apparently incompatible.

I have no reason to assume that Arling & Cameron would sound as good if they absorbed the modern-day pop-sound film-track (“Mambo No. 5,” Backstreet Boys, Celine Dion, Metallica, “Back That Azz Up”). But if they did sound good doing so, they’d sure matter more.

Emperor Norton, 102 Robinson Street, Los Angeles, CA 90026. Arling & Cameron play the Knitting Factory March 4.